By Lise Funderburg
O the Oprah Magazine
If you think you can’t improve on a fresh, steamed-to-perfection Maine lobster, try chef Jody Williams’s light, zingy Italian-accented version. Bellissimo! LISE FUNDERBURG ciaos down.
In the Mercurial world of restaurants, where most new ventures don’t last more than a couple of years, only one thing endures: great cooking. Jody Williams, executive chef at Gusto, a popular 85-seat trattoria in Manhattan’s West Village, has seen her share of kitchens, and out of each one she has consistently produced blockbuster dishes. Wherever she steps into her clogs and chef’s whites, Williams melds classic, unpretentious Italian cuisine with an insistence on using what’s in season and at its peak that day, preprinted menu be damned.
“I follow un-restaurant rules,” Williams says of her willingness to break away from routine. ‘And those are spontaneity and flexibility.” If she finds some perfectly ripe melon in the morning, it will be on the menu with prosciutto that evening “and it’s going to be the best-tasting melon you’ll have all year.” Williams’s waiters take careful note of the daily specials, which she writes in erasable marker on the subway tile wall of Gusto’s basement kitchen. And she’s not averse to special requests, especially if they come from customers asking for dishes they’ve had at the restaurant before—like carciofi alia Romana, braised artichokes in white wine. “I love when that happens,” Williams says. “If I can do it, I will. And it’s good for my cooks to get a break from rote cooking.”
The self-taught Californian, 43, has bounced around domestically and abroad, working with such stellar chefs as Thomas Keller and Mario Batali, and at the helm of her own consistently well-received ventures. Williams is no shrinking violet, and her commitment to—okay, stubborn insistence on—valuing well-prepared meals over pomp is part of what’s kept her moving. She wants her food to nurture rather than prance. “In my kitchen,” she says, “we’re going to make dinner; it’s not going to be a show.”
At the sleekly appointed Gusto, where a black-and-white decor is softened by textured fabrics and surfaces, a few beloved dishes do show up regularly: Williams serves polpettine alia Siciliana, meatballs made of veal and pork, spiked with pine nuts and raisins in a tomato sauce, year-round. Spring brings fave e Pecorino, an addictive salad of fava beans, escarole, mint, basil, and Pecorino. “When it’s warm, though,” Williams says, “we are going to the beach—to Tuscany, Livorno, and all the way down to Sicily.” The Italian seaside inspired the Maine lobster acqua pazza featured here. The name of the dish means “crazy water” and refers to a traditional method of cooking fish in a broth made of olive oil, wine, and tomatoes, with just a pinch of red chilies for heat. Where some chefs use capers or anchovies to give the broth extra bite, Williams enlists crushed green olives. And her final twist, borrowing from a Sicilian preparation for swordfish, is to add an unexpected but delightful sprig of mint, which definitively recasts the American experience of lobster from being the Thing You Drench in Butter to a fresh, delicate antidote to the heaviest heat of summer.
Maine lobster acqua pazza can be served anytime, from a brunch outdoors to a dinner. It’s quick to prepare—half an hour start to finish—and the rich colors of the lobster shell and tomato skins make for instant festivity. To feed a crowd, Williams says, “just put it onto big platters and serve it family-style.” The tomatoes are a salad stand-in and the broth works as a soup, an elixir so delectable that Williams always accompanies it with mounds of sliced Italian bread that’s been grilled and then rubbed with fresh garlic. “Italians call the bread scarpetta, which means ‘little shoe,'” she explains. “They scoop it across the dish to sop up all the juices.”
Williams suggests serving a chilled Prosecco, the approachable Italian version of Champagne, and finishing off the meal with watermelon, either in an icy granita or unadulterated slices.
“Summer cooking is all about ease,” she says. “When you can’t clean another fava bean or make another veal stock, you want meals that are fast and don’t require a lot of prep.” True to Williams’s form, this light dish is neither performance-driven nor precision-driven cooking: It’s fine to serve the lobster anywhere from hot off the stove to room temperature. But it is shellfish, Williams warns, in case you are tempted to leave it out for hours. “There’s a difference,” says the perennial nurturer, “between ease and poisoning.” •
Lise Funderburg eats lobster (with gusto) in Philadelphia.
Maine Lobster Acqua Pazza
When making this dish, Jody Williams starts with a live lobster and a sharp knife, but if you’re squeamish—or saw Annie Hall one too many times—you can ask your fishmonger to do the chopping for you and begin the recipe with step 2.
1 (2-pound) lobster
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus 2 tsp. for drizzling
3 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch crushed red chilies
10 green olives,
crushed and pitted V4 cup dry white wine 1 pint ripe cherry
tomatoes, halved 6 fresh basil leaves 1 sprig fresh mint ‘4 tsp. kosher
1. Start by cleaning lobster: With a JLI heavy chef’s knife, plunge tip straight down behind lobster’s head. Cut lobster in half lengthwise, first through body cavity, then through tail section. Remove and discard stomach (the white sack located in lobster’s head). Separate claws. With back of knife, crack claws and arms.
2. Place a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Warm 3Tbsp. olive oil and add lobster and its juices. Add garlic and chilies, cooking until golden brown. Add olives and cook 3 minutes, turning lobster occasionally
3. Turn heat to high and add white wine and !4 cup water. Reduce liquids 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, herbs, and salt and cook 1 to 2 minutes longer, or until lobster is cooked through. Cut into pieces and drizzle with olive oil. Serve with grilled Italian bread rubbed with garlic, if desired. Makes 2 servings.